Disciplining your preschooler

Disciplining your
Preschoolers are delightful to
have around, but at times can be
quite a challenge! Learning how
to get along with others and
follow rules takes lots of practice
for preschoolers; learning how to
guide and discipline preschoolers
takes lots of patience for parents.
■ Understanding
preschool children
Preschool children are busy
learning about the world around
them. They ask lots of questions
and they love to imitate adults.
They are learning to share and
take turns (but don’t always want
to). Sometimes they want to play
with others and sometimes they
want to be alone.
Preschoolers also are quite independent. They like to try new things
and often take risks. They may try
to shock you at times by using
“forbidden words.” Getting attention is fun, being ignored is not.
Preschoolers like to make
decisions for themselves because
it makes them feel important.
They also are likely to get carried
away and become rather bossy.
Preschoolers have lots of
energy—sometimes more energy
than adults! They play hard, fast,
and furious; then they tire suddenly
and get cranky and irritable.
Preschoolers spend a lot of time
learning how to get along with
others. “Best friends” are very
important, but such friendships
are brief and may last only a few
minutes. Hurt feelings (and
sometimes swift kicks) are part of
the learning process too.
variety of approaches to deal with
behavioral problems.
Set up a safe environment
One of the most important things
a parent can do is to
establish a safe
■ Ideas for parents
There is no one right way to
discipline. An approach that is
successful in one situation may
not work in another. Also, different children respond in different
ways to disciplining methods.
Successful parents often use a
PM 1529b
Revised April 2001
Preschoolers move quickly and
love to climb and explore. Take a
close look at your home including
the exterior, garage, and yard.
You may be able to avoid some
accidents. Fix, repair, toss, or lock
up anything that might be a
danger to your child.
It also is important to be on the
look out for dangerous situations
while running errands or visiting
others with your children. Having
a safe place to play and appropriate toys to play with can save you
from saying “NO,” making your
job as a parent much easier.
Establish a routine
Preschoolers need a consistent
routine and reasonable bedtimes.
Their small stomachs and high
energy levels frequently need
nutritious snacks and meals.
Establishing consistent times for
eating, napping, and playing
helps children learn how to pace
themselves. Balance the day with
active times, quiet times, times to
be alone, and times to be with
others. Take care of basic needs to
help prevent frustrating situations
with a cranky and whiny child.
Set a good example
Preschoolers love to imitate
adults. Watch your bad habits
because your youngster will be
sure to copy them! If you want
your child to use good manners or
pick up his or her room, be sure to
demonstrate how to do it.
Preschoolers are very interested in
“why” we do things; it helps to
explain what you are doing in
very simple terms.
Time out
Many parents like to use a technique called “time out.” A time out
is just that—a time out or cooling
off period. When a child is misbehaving or out of control, he or she
needs to be removed or isolated
for a few minutes. Time out can
be used with children ages 3 to 12
and with as many children as you
have private places. For young
children, however, the time out
period needs to be no longer than
5 minutes or they tend to forget
the reason for the time out.
A time out gives a child a few
minutes to settle down and think
about what has happened. Parents need to follow-up by talking
with the child about the misbehavior.
Young children do not always
understand their misdoings. It helps
to explain what happened, what
they should not be doing, and what
they can do instead. They also
need the opportunity to practice the
correct behavior. Keep such discussions simple. You might say, “It’s
not OK to hit your sister. Instead,
tell her with words that you want
to play with the blocks, too.”
Active listening
Child: John won’t let me ride in
the wagon.
Father: Sounds like you are upset
about that.
Child: Yeah, he’s mean!
Father: Hmm. You sound really
Child: Yeah! I had the wagon first.
Father: You were playing with
the wagon before John was?
Child: Yeah, then he took it away.
Father: Hmm. Wonder why?
Child: I dunno. Maybe because I
wouldn’t let him play.
Father: Wonder how both of you
could play with the wagon?
Child: Maybe he could ride and I
could pull!
This is an example of active
listening in which the father is
trying to understand the problem
as well as the child’s feelings. The
father does not try to end the
conversation; instead, he encourages it. With the father’s time and
support, the child is able to explore
the situation, understand the
problem, and even offer a solution.
Sometimes preschoolers do not
need an adult to intervene.
Rather, they need someone who
will listen and help them work
through a problem.
Young children still have very
limited problem-solving skills. The
child in the above example was 5
years old. With a 3-year-old in the
same situation, the father may have
needed to be more direct or offer a
suggestion. For example:
Father: Maybe you could both
sit in the wagon, or maybe one of
you can pull and the other one can
sit. Which idea do you like best?
Natural or logical
Natural or logical consequences
help children understand the
connection between their actions
and the results of their misbehavior.
Natural consequences are
results that would naturally
happen after a child’s behavior if
the parent did not do anything.
The following examples show
how natural consequences work.
• Four-year-old Cara was
tossing a quarter around in
the car. Her mother asked her
to put the quarter in her
pocket. Cara continued to toss
her money and the quarter
flew out the window. She lost
her quarter.
• Five-year-old Juan kept forgetting to put the ball in his toy
box when he came inside from
playing. One afternoon the ball
disappeared. Juan lost his ball.
Logical consequences should
be used whenever natural
consequences are dangerous or
unpractical. For example, it
would be dangerous for a child
to experience the natural consequence of running into the street
and getting hit by a car!
Logical consequences happen
when a parent helps the child
correct the behavior. A logical
consequence of a child running
into the street could be losing the
privilege of playing outside. Dad
might comment, “Looks like you
will need to play inside. When
you can stay out of the street,
then you can play outdoors.”
The following examples also
illustrate the use of logical
• Four-year-old Alex said
“Yuck!” and hurled his muffin
across the kitchen. Dad calmly
picked up the muffin and put
it in the trash. Dad commented, “When you keep
your food on your plate, then
you can eat.” Alex went
without a snack.
Watch your language
Use your words carefully to teach children. Focus on what to do
rather than what not to do.
Try saying:
Instead of:
Slow down and walk.
Stop running.
Come hold my hand.
Don’t touch anything.
Keep your feet on the floor.
Don’t climb on the couch.
Use your quiet voice inside.
Stop screaming and shouting.
• Five-year-old Dena and fouryear-old Peter are fighting. Mom
says, “Looks like you two are
having trouble getting along.
Find something that you can play
with together or you’ll have to
play alone in separate rooms.”
Often, the problem is not what
the child is doing, but the way he
or she is doing it. In that case,
redirecting or teaching the child a
different way to do the same thing
can be effective. If the child is
drawing on books, remove the
books and say, “Books are not for
drawing on.” Offer a substitute at
the same time and say, “If you
want to draw on something, draw
on this paper.” If your child is
throwing blocks, you can remove
the blocks and offer a ball to throw.
If the child wants to dance on the
coffee table, help him or her down
and ask your child to perform for
you on the front porch.
Ignoring the behavior
Undesirable behavior can sometimes be stopped by not paying
attention to it. In some situations
this can work effectively. Withhold
all attention, praise, and support.
Eventually, the child quits the
unacceptable behavior because it
does not bring the desired attention. This works particularly well
when a child uses forbidden or
swear words to get attention.
When all else fails
Sometimes children have a
behavioral problem that seems to
happen over and over. When
nothing seems to be working, try
the who, what, when, where, and
how method. Ask yourself,
“When does the troublesome
behavior seem to happen?
What happens just before and
after? Where does it happen and
with whom? How do I usually
respond? How could I prevent
the behavior? What other approaches could I use?”
The best method to find a more
successful way to cope with
behavioral problems is to take the
time to think about options.
■ Does spanking
Preschoolers often respond well
to physical action when you need
to discipline them. Touching them
on the arm, taking them by the
hand, picking them up, holding,
or restraining them are all good
ways to get their attention.
Spanking also will get their
attention, but doesn’t do a very
good job of teaching children how
to behave. In fact, it generally
distresses a child so much that he
or she can’t pay attention to your
explanations and directions. It’s
hard to reason with a screaming,
crying child.
Spanking and slapping can
quickly get out-of-hand for both
parents and children. Most reported cases of abuse involve
loving, well-meaning parents
who lost control. Studies show
that children who experience or
witness a great deal of spanking,
slapping, or hitting are much
more likely to become aggressive
themselves. Children who are
bullied by older brothers, sisters,
or other children often react by
bullying others. Children who are
spanked frequently often hit
younger children.
Preschoolers love to imitate. Most
parents find it more successful to
focus on teaching a child what to
do rather than what not to do. It may
help to think of behavior problems
as opportunities to teach your child
new skills. After all, the word
discipline comes from the word
disciple, which means to teach.
■ Taking care of
Parenting preschoolers is
challenging and works better
when you remember to take care
of yourself. Remember to rest, eat
well, and relax. Above all else, try
to maintain a sense of humor.
When you discover your child
dumping flour on the floor or
finger painting with the sour
cream, remember that someday
this will be a great story to tell
your grandchildren. Grab a
camera and take a picture! You will
want to remember this. Honest.
■ Read more about it!
For more information about
children and families contact your
county extension office and ask
for the following.
Is Your Baby Safe at Home, PM 954a-d
Understanding Children: Temper
tantrums, PM 1529j
Understanding Children: Toilet
training, PM 1529k
Understanding Children: Biting,
PM 1529a
Ages & Stages, 1530e-g
Also visit the ISU Extension
Web site at
File: Family life 8
Written by Lesia Oesterreich, extension
family life specialist. Illustrations by
Lonna Nachtigal. Graphic design by
Valerie Dittmer King.
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